By Ryan Brock
All data is from cleaning the glass, unless specified otherwise.
Respect. It’s something every young NBA team strives for. Respect from opposing teams. Respect from the fans. Respect from the national media. With rising stars Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner, the Orlando Magic are taking baby steps toward that goal. Although with only one true national televised game this season, collectively, the team is still looking to earn that respect around the league. While Banchero and Wagner have put the team on the radar for the teams 35th Anniversary season, it still feels as though the Magic are being slept on. Betting lines still only have the Magic’s win total over/under at 36.5, a number that hardcore fans will scoff at, similar to last year's ridiculous 27.5 over/under.
One could argue that the main reason for the number has to do with health. Key players simply haven’t been able to stay on the floor in the past couple of seasons, hindering Orlando’s chances of stringing together solid performances for extended periods of time. But I would argue that at least for this upcoming season, the egregious win total number and lack of nationally televised recognition stems from a disrespect for the young core of Magic guards: Markelle Fultz, Cole Anthony and Jalen Suggs.
On one hand, one could see why this core is finding it difficult to gain respect around the league. Even though each of the young trio have yet to eclipse 26 years old, each has had to overcome their own unique setbacks. All three have battled injuries during their young careers, albeit to varying degrees. Each has struggled to shoot the ball from deep and each has failed to live up to expectations relative to how they were viewed before they came into the league. That much is fair, but on the other hand, all three look poised for a breakout and are primed to have the best seasons of their careers. Yet, nobody other Magic fans seems to be talking about it.
I want to shine a light on why each of three young guards are being completely overlooked heading into the most exciting season of Magic basketball in more than a decade.
The perception of Markelle Futlz from a national perspective is a little mind boggling. One cannot watch a Magic game without seeing the absurd value that Fultz brings to this team. But because he was the number one overall pick and had a tumultuous start to his career caused by thoracic outlet syndrome, Fultz is still battling against the false narrative that he’s some sort of bust. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Combine this misconception with the fact that Markelle’s counting stats have never been eye popping, it’s easy to see why he doesn’t get the love he deserves. Last season, he averaged 14 points a game, dishing out just under six assists and shooting 51% from the field. While the three point shot improved to 31%, up from a career percentage hovering around 25%, Futlz was still clearly working out the injury riddled kinks in his mechanics that plagued him early in his NBA career.
But it’s never been about the stats with Markelle Fultz. If you actually watch the Magic play basketball, the capability of the team was night and day with Fultz as their floor general. The offense flow was smoother, players were getting open shots, tempo increased, It was abundantly clear as to how important Markelle was to this team. The Magic roughly played 500. Basketball with Fultz in the line-up the rest of the season, and throughout his career when he’s on the court, which brings us to a promising 2023.
Markelle has finally put together a healthy off-season, something he’s never had in his career, and is ready to make his season debut against the Rockets on October 25th. And while I said it’s never been about the numbers with Markelle, I am expecting a significant statistical jump from him this year on his way to a breakout season. Fultz looked springier than ever in the latter part of the year, throwing down several highlight dunks in the open court and swatting balls into the stands on chasedown blocks. He finally seemed to be regaining some of his bounce that he had prior to the ACL injury.
Then there’s the jump shot. I know we tend to do this every year, but recent videos of Markelle’s shooting mechanics has given me a renewed sense of optimism that he can continue to improve his three point percentage. If Fultz can find an uptick in percentage to about 35%, it would force teams to at least respect him from beyond the arc and help spread the floor for Paolo and Franz to do their work in the paint.
You may say to yourself that you’ve heard this before, but for me, it feels a little more realistic because of what we saw from Markelle towards the end of last season. Futlz displayed a willingness to finally let it fly off the dribble from three, something we never witnessed in Orlando up until that point. And it didn’t look bad either. The shot possessed similarities to his mid-range jumper that he loves so much, where he shot 47% last season.
Well Fultz has taken that confidence into the off-season and has continued to work. The training camp videos depict a change in Markelle’s catch and shoot mechanics from deep as well, a shooting form more reminiscent of his shot pre-injury. While we of course need to see this in a game and it may never be back to what it was when he was the best player in the country, it’s yet another signal that Markelle may be starting to find his University of Washington form again. If that is truly the case, it’s going to be a scary season for Markelle Fultz and people will finally start to take notice of his tremendous talent.
Anthony was drafted during the Covid year in 2020, coming out of North Carolina after being heralded as one of the best players in the nation while attending Oak Hill Academy in high school. While he had good moments, his season with the Tar Heels didn’t exactly go as planned and Anthony slipped to the 15th overall pick in 2020 to the Magic.
The knock on Cole has always been efficiency. He’s a career 41% shooter from the field and 34.5% from deep. His slight stature finds him struggling to score at the rim, where he’s a career 56% finisher. However, last season, Cole may have found his groove again, sliding into a sixth man role where he averaged 13 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 3.9 assists off the bench for the Magic.
Anthony attempted to answer some of those efficiency questions in the second half of the season, shooting 50% from the field and 43% from three after the all-star break. But the league didn’t seem to care. He didn’t receive a single vote for sixth man of the year and isn’t on the radar for the award this season either, at least according to sports betting odds. Recent odds on Betsided places Anthony behind players like Isaiah Joe, Brandon Clarke, and Talen Horton-Tucker as candidates for the award. Much of that may have to do with the Magic’s record last season, as recognition usually comes along with winning, but what Anthony did last season doesn’t get talked about enough around the league and he is often overlooked in any type of dialogue about the best players off the bench.
A step forward from Cole would be a massive win for the Magic, who are desperately looking for internal shooting improvement amongst their players. Cole is an ideal candidate for that criteria. His shot mechanics are solid and he’s not afraid to let it rip.
He certainly doesn’t lack confidence, but Anthony must be precise with his shot selection if he wants to sustain the efficiency numbers he garnered post all-star break.
Cole should be plenty motivated. Along with proving his doubters wrong, he is fighting for a starting spot and is also in a contract year, as he’s yet to come to an extension with the Magic during the off-season. As he enters his final season before restricted free agency, he has to prove that the second half wasn’t a fluke. If he can do that, you will probably see him fighting for some sixth man of the year votes, earning a nice contract as a reward.
Then we have Jalen Suggs. The forgotten man of the 2021 Draft, Suggs has evidently faded from the consciousness of NBA media with a slow start to his career. Injuries have certainly played a big role in that, as Suggs has battled ankle, wrist, and thumb injuries that have plagued his young career. Coming out of Gonzaga, Magic fans couldn’t have been more ecstatic to select Suggs 5th overall in 2021, the same draft that netted them Franz Wagner. Suggs was supposed to be the star for the Magic coming out of that draft, and he still might be, but thus far, it’s fair to say it’s been a struggle, at least on offense.
Similar to the other Magic guards, shooting has been a problematic part of Jalen’s game to this point, but he has shown signs of life. He saw an 11% jump on his three point shot from his rookie to sophomore season, finishing at 32.7% for the season. Like the aforementioned Fultz and Anthony, slight improvement would do wonders for his game and this team as a whole. Suggs still has a lot to improve with his offensive game, including his propensity to turn the ball over and ball handling, but he is making strides. If you want to criticize him on that side of the ball, it’s understandable. But where Suggs deserves much more respect on a national level is for his tenacious defensive prowess.
Players like Herb Jones, Lu Dort, Gary Payton Jr, and Matisse Thybulle get plenty of recognition for being defensive studs even though their offensive game lags behind, yet Jalen’s name rarely comes up in that conversation despite his ability to showcase elite on-ball defense when he is on the floor. His ability to lock up the opposing team's best guard was on full display last season when the Magic took on the Warriors, as Suggs put the clamps on Steph Curry late in the game to help lead Orlando to a victory.
It’s that type of effort that allows Suggs to impact the game even if his shot isn’t falling. Suggs got that dawg in him. It is not something you can teach. It’s why he’s already grown into a fan favorite even if he hasn’t lived up to his own expectations yet.
The thing with Suggs is his offensive potential is much greater than any of the guys I mentioned above. Even through the struggles, he’s flashed enough in his first two years in the league to remain bullish on his offensive upside. Suggs can blow by defenders and get to his spots with ease. showed a nice feel for a mid-range jumper, and will dunk on your head. He’s also similar to Cole in that near the end of last season he showed major improvement with his three point shot. Many seem to want to ignore it, or perhaps they just need a larger sample size before they start believing it, but Suggs shot 37% from three post all-star break and continued to trend up during the final month.
There’s no question about what Jalen will bring defensively, even if the national pundits don’t want to necessarily give him the credit he’s earned. Where he was drafted could have a lot to do with it. People expect more from him offensively, which to an extent, I understand. But Jalen seems different this year. He seems ready to put his name back on the map. If Jalen can put together a healthy season, I would fully expect him to be in the conversation for an all-defensive team. Once that happens, they will realize what Magic fans already knew.
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